War Eagle Extra has moved!

You should be automatically redirected in 10 seconds. If not, visit
http://www.ledger-enquirer.com/wareagleextra
and update your bookmarks.

September 3, 2013

VIDEO: Coordinators Rhett Lashlee and Ellis Johnson discuss their respective units

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn’s two coordinators — Rhett Lashlee (offensive) and Ellis Johnson (defensive) — had a lot to say Monday night. So much, in fact, that we had to split each of their press conferences into two videos apiece.

The videos are provided below.

Lashlee, Part I

Lashlee, Part II

Johnson, Part I

Johnson, Part II

Auburn notes: Rhett Lashlee disappointed with offense, Ellis Johnson discusses Justin Garrett’s status

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala.Rhett Lashlee didn’t offer any false praise Monday night.

Auburn’s offensive coordinator said his unit has a long way to go. About the only positive he could take from Saturday’s season opener was that the Tigers came out on top of a 31-24 decision against Washington State.

Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said his unit isn't close to playing to the level the coaching staff expects this fall. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said his unit isn’t close to playing to the level the coaching staff expects this fall. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

Other than that, Lashlee said looking at the film was rough.

“I just felt like every time we had a chance to really put some distance between us and them (we didn’t do it), whether it be missing a deep ball or having a touchdown called back for a penalty,” he said. “We could have gone up 11 or 14, but we just sputtered and didn’t take advantage of those moments. That’s not good enough. We have to be in those positions in the future where we’re in a position to kind of separate ourselves. We have to press forward and get some distance between ourselves and the opponent.”

Yes, Lashlee conceded the offense “made enough plays” to seal the victory. Yes, some of the mistakes could be attributed to first-game jitters. That didn’t excuse a late turnover by Tre Mason, however, which gave Washington State one last chance to tie the game following Robenson Therezie’s interception in the end zone on the Cougars’ previous possession.

Those are the types of miscues, Lashlee said, that must be corrected soon.

“We’re not where we want to be yet. There’s no doubt about that,” he said. “We’re making strides.”

To get to where Lashlee and head coach Gus Malzahn want them to be, the Tigers will have to meet the coaching staff’s goal of running at least 80 offensive snaps per game. Saturday, Auburn had just 65. Multiple factors played a hand in that, Lashlee said.

Take the Tigers’ one-play drive in the second quarter, when running back Corey Grant dashed 75 yards for a touchdown. Or take another play earlier in the same period when the offense never had a chance to take a snap, since Mason returned a kickoff 100 yards for a score.

There was another area the Tigers controlled where they simply didn’t produce.

“We’ve got to stay on the field and convert third downs more,” said Lashlee, alluding to Auburn’s 4-for-13 showing. “If you don’t convert third downs, you’re not going to stay on the field and get more plays. If you don’t get those third downs converted, you’re (not) going to get your tempo going.”

Johnson talks about Garrett’s absence

Ellis Johnson was disappointed “Star” Justin Garrett wasn’t able to play Saturday.

But he was far from surprised the junior didn’t suit up.

“His foot has been just sort of a strange thing,” Auburn’s defensive coordinator said. “It’ll feel good one day and all of a sudden he’ll turn on it the wrong way and the strain on it comes back in.”

If it was necessary to play him, Johnson said Garrett would have been on the field. That being said, Johnson acknowledged it meant Garrett likely wouldn’t have been “full-speed” physically or mentally to play at the level expected of him.

That’s why the coaching staff was more than happy to give Garrett more time to heal.

Besides, they had the utmost faith in his backup, Therezie.

“We just felt like Robenson was playing really well,” Johnson said. “The only problem is he probably had to play too many snaps.  He was on every coverage team in special teams, and he played every defensive snap almost to about the end of the fourth quarter. We had to try to get him off the field, give him a blow. That was the only thing.”

As to when Garrett will return?

Johnson had didn’t announce a timetable, deeming the Georgia native’s status as “day-to-day.” Given how well Therezie played Saturday — hauling in two interceptions and tying for the second-most tackles (seven) on the team , which earned him the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Week award on Monday — Johnson was asked whether the two “Stars” could eventually see the field together in the team’s base 4-2-5 formation.

“We’re probably not at a point of figuring something out like that right now,” he said. “We’d just like to get (Garrett) healthy. It’s been frustrating. We talked about the player being one of our most dynamic players in the spring, and there’s no production on the game film, and it’s been going on for two years now. So we’d like to get him healthy, get him on the field and find out if he can play. We’ll have to cross that bridge when we get to it.”

Johnson: Frazier has ‘leveled off’ at safety

Quarterback-turned-safety Kiehl Frazier has earned nothing but high marks since switching to defense during fall camp. Coaches and teammates alike noted how quickly he had picked up the defensive’s schemes and concepts. He had even progressed to the point he was listed on the Tigers’ two-deep depth chart entering last Saturday’s game, pegged as the backup to Josh Holsey at boundary safety.

His growth has finally hit a wall, though, as Johnson said Frazier has “leveled off” in the last week.

“Right now, he’s not comfortable where to line up and what to do,” Johnson said. “It’s not  a physical issue. He’s shown in drills and a couple of scrimmages he can tackle when he gets in the right place, but right now it’s not coming too clearly for him. Hopefully, another week of practice that light will turn on and he’ll get better.”

Quick hits

Johnson wasn’t ready to say whether defensive end Dee Ford could be back for Auburn’s SEC opener, which will see them host Mississippi State on Sept. 15. “That’s a medical decision. We’re certainly not good enough to hold anybody that can be a great player on a given day,” he said. “But right now it’s all on rehabilitation and when they’re ready physically.”

September 2, 2013

Auburn football: Despite three interceptions in opener, Tigers’ secondary far from satisfied

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Football isn’t a game that lends itself to correcting failures overnight.

Auburn's Robenson Therezie (left) celebrated with running back Tre Mason (right) following the Tigers' victory on Saturday. But Auburn's secondary wasn't pleased snagging only three interceptions on Saturday. (ROBIN TRIMARCHI/Ledger-Enquirer)

Auburn’s Robenson Therezie (left) celebrated with running back Tre Mason (right) following the Tigers’ victory on Saturday. But Auburn’s secondary wasn’t pleased snagging only three interceptions on Saturday. (ROBIN TRIMARCHI/Ledger-Enquirer)

Normally, it’s a process, taking multiple games — if not a whole season — before one can fairly judge a team’s merit in any single area.

Consider Auburn’s secondary an exception, then.

The Tigers’ defensive backs heard about their paltry 2012 interception total (one) nearly every day of the offseason. That single pickoff came from safety Trent Fisher, who returned it for a touchdown in Auburn’s effortless 51-7 victory against Alabama A&M. The Tigers had only one other interception last season, courtesy of linebacker Daren Bates.

Auburn’s secondary showed how last year was where it should be in its season opener on Saturday: in the past.

Auburn came up with three interceptions against Washington State signal-caller Connor Halliday, eclipsing last year’s total in the span of a single contest.

The sterling performance served dual purposes: It was a weight lifted off the shoulders of the entire unit as much as a needed shot in the arm.

“It was great,” said safety Josh Holsey, who had one of the three thefts. “It makes us feel more comfortable about ourselves and it lets other team know you can’t just come over here and toss the ball around on us.”

The sophomore then explained how the play unfolded from his vantage point.

“I tried to go get it as high as I could,” he said. “I really didn’t think (Halliday) was going to throw it because I was right there. When I saw it, I just ran up and tried to get it at its highest point.”

Holsey’s one interception was doubled by Robenson Therezie, who picked off a pair of passes, both at crucial times for the Tigers. His good work didn’t go unrecognized, as the SEC named him the league’s Defensive Player of the Week on Monday.

And to think he accomplished the feat in his first start as a collegian.

Despite being asked to replace A-Day MVP Justin Garrett at the the Tigers’ hybrid “Star” position, Therezie didn’t blink.

In fact, he said didn’t even think about it.

“Oh, I didn’t feel the pressure at all,” he said. “I knew we had to execute. We have really good backups, and I just wanted to stay in the game. It was my first start, ever, in college football, and I just wanted to stay on the field.”

On his first pilfer and Auburn trailing 7-0, Therezie grabbed a tipped pass at the Tigers’ 48-yard line and returned it to the Cougars’ 28-yard line. Four plays later, Auburn was in the end zone for the first time in 2013.

His second interception was even more critical. With the Cougars just eight yards away from the end zone and down 31-24 with 4:57 to go in the final quarter, Halliday threw a fade route toward the right corner of the end zone. It never made it to his intended receiver, as Therezie jumped up and snatched the ball out of the air, dashing Washington State’s last scoring threat in the process.

Head coach Gus Malzahn was visibly pleased with Therezie, highlighting the Fairburn native’s effort in his postgame press conference.

“He played really good,” Malzahn said. “He played a lot of snaps out there and he was tired but he found a way, especially with that one in the end zone late.”

Once a team tastes success, though, greed tends to set in.

That’s why the Tigers couldn’t care less about the three interceptions they collected.

Instead, disappointment reigned supreme.

“They’re in the frame of mind now they’re not frustrated that they didn’t get any,” defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said. “They’re frustrated that they didn’t get more, which is the way you want it.”

August 30, 2013

Auburn football: Two ‘different flavors’ of spread offense to clash when Tigers face Cougars on Saturday

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala.Ellis Johnson has seen nearly every type of offense imaginable in his 30-plus years of coaching.

Auburn quarterback will spearhead Gus Malzahn's run-heavy spread attack when the Tigers host the Washington State Cougars on Saturday. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

Auburn quarterback will spearhead Gus Malzahn’s run-heavy spread attack when the Tigers host the Washington State Cougars on Saturday. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

No system is an island. When coaches see something they like, they borrow the concepts to incorporate it into their own scheme. Because of that, Auburn’s defensive coordinator didn’t have a problem with people who want to label both Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn’s and Washington State head coach Mike Leach’s systems as “spread” attacks despite their differing ideologies.

“The spread to me is three or four wide receivers on the field at one time and tempo,” Johnson said. “There are all different flavors. (Leach) wants to throw the ball more; Gus wants to run the ball more. What we’ve practiced against with our own offense in some respects will prepare us very well for what we’re going to see.”

Johnson said the Tigers will probably end up playing “two or three teams” this season that share some similarities with the Cougars. No team is as heavily reliant on the passing game as the Cougars, though. In 12 games last season, Washington State attempted 624 passes, which translates to exactly 52 per contest.

“There’s no question about it — he loves to throw the football,” Johnson said of Leach. “If you allow him to establish the running back, you’re in for a long day. You can’t just take a pass-defense approach and forget about the run. They have an offensive line that’s greatly improved. They’re good players. I think their running game is going to be more effect this year. It’s something you can’t ignore.”

It won’t be the first time Leach and Johnson have squared off. In 1997, Leach was the offensive coordinator at Kentucky while Johnson served as Alabama’s defensive coordinator. That year, the Wildcats defeated the Crimson Tide 40-34 in overtime, Kentucky’s first victory in the series since 1922.

Over time, Johnson has seen how Leach’s scheme has evolved.

“They ran a lot more two-back (formations) back then,” he said. “Just as wide open, a lot of screens, a lot of scatting the backs, free releasing them. They can line up in two-back or one-back, and by the snap of the ball, it’s almost an empty set. They’re checking out of there.”

On that same token, though, Washington State will have to contend with Auburn’s running game, which boasts a plethora of options in the backfield. Ironically, Leach said he was more worried when the Tigers take to the air given what he’s seen from quarterback Nick Marshall.

“He obviously can (throw the ball vertically),” Leach said. “He did it in JC (junior college) and they were impressed with him there and he’s a real athletic guy. … He’s good and hopefully he doesn’t get it all figured out before we leave town.”

Defensively, the Cougars will run out of multiple fronts and myriad coverages, so much so that Tigers offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee wasn’t sure what to expect Saturday.

“It’s the first game,” he said. “You’re not real sure what the other team is going to do. We’ve got to be ready for whatever they throw at us and anything they could do. With us starting a new quarterback, you’d expect that. With them having (so many starters) back on the same defense with the same coordinator, I think they’d have the full arsenal of tactics that we’ve seen from them in the past.”

And their 3-9 record didn’t belie how competitive the Cougars were last season, Malzahn said. During film study, he saw how Washington State played Oregon, which ended the year ranked No. 2, to a near-draw in the first half before the Ducks pulled away for a 51-26 victory. The Cougars were even closer against Stanford, losing 24-17 to a Cardinals team that finished No. 7 in the final Associated Press poll last year.

“They’re capable, even last year, of playing good football,” Malzahn said. “I think sometimes they got behind and it kind of snowballed on them, but we’re really expecting a much-improved team.”

One thing is certain: Both teams are committed to snapping the ball as quickly as possible. With that in mind, Malzahn wouldn’t rule out possibly slowing things down if needed.

That would be the option of last resort, though.

“It just depends on what gives you the best chance of winning,” he said. “We’ll see how it unfolds.”

August 28, 2013

Quote Roundup: Mike Leach Teleconference

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

Washington State head coach Mike Leach took part in the Pac-12 coaches’ teleconference on Tuesday. Check out a roundup of his quotes below. (Providing a roundup of the opposing coach’s quotes will be a running feature at War Eagle Extra every Wednesday afternoon.)

Here’s what Leach had to say in his eight-minute call with reporters:

Washington State head coach Mike Leach will lead his team into Jordan-Hare Stadium to take on Auburn on Saturday. (AP Photo/Dean Hare)

Washington State head coach Mike Leach will lead his team into Jordan-Hare Stadium to take on Auburn on Saturday. (AP Photo/Dean Hare)

On what he remembers about Kentucky’s 40-34 overtime win against Alabama in 1997, when he served as the Wildcats’ offensive coordinator and matched wits with then-Crimson Tide defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson:

“I don’t remember a darn thing (about Alabama’s defense). I never knew we’d gone against Ellis Johnson.”

On being informed Johnson was on the Crimson Tide’s staff that season:

“Son of a gun. I didn’t know that. Well that’s good to know. I didn’t know that. I felt like crazy that I’d known about his career for a long time. I had no idea.”

On what it was like to beat the Crimson Tide:

“It was a wild game and it was a heck of a game, I’ll tell you that. It really was a war. Kentucky hadn’t beat Alabama in 75 years. Can you imagine that? Now they didn’t play every one of those 75 years, but they played a lot of those years. For example, George Blanda was in the locker room. There was a fella that was a quarterback — and you could probably look it up — on something like the 1920-something team. He was the quarterback for that team the last time Kentucky had beaten Alabama on like the 1925 team. He was obviously in his 90s and in his wheelchair. He died not too long after that, well into his 90s. I’m not sure he didn’t stay around until Kentucky finally did beat Alabama (again).

“It was a heck of a game, back-and-forth. I felt like we should have won it in regulation (because) we had moved the ball awfully well. So when it got close, we had a good play or two on defense — got a turnover and blocked a field goal — and then down there in overtime we threw a curl route to Craig Yeast, who split two defenders and scored the winning touchdown.”

On preparing to face Auburn’s 4-2-5 scheme:

“One thing is that (Johnson’s) guys play really hard and have always played hard. And the other thing is they don’t throw a ton of stuff at you. It’s like they’ve got their philosophy and they’re going to execute it, which is honestly the approach I respect the most. And they just play hard. They’ve always been good at takeaways as well.”

On what he’s seen from Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall:

“He obviously can (throw the ball vertically). He did it in JC (junior college) and they were impressed with him there and he’s a real athletic guy, which is exactly why he’s had the opportunity to play two major positions on the team. I think he’s good and hopefully he doesn’t get it all figured out before we leave town.”

On how much he has prepared his team for playing in Jordan-Hare Stadium and the difference in weather between Auburn and Pullman, Wash.:

“We’ve kind of embraced the fact that it’s been significantly hotter here the past couple of weeks than it has been down there. And then from there, once a place is loud, it’s loud. Once communication is reduced to the point where you need nonverbal communication, it’s all about the same from there.”

On the temperatures in Pullman recently:

“It’s warmer here this week than it’s going to be in Auburn. The week before, it was pretty much dead-even. And the week before that, it was significantly hotter here in Pullman. And if I wasn’t on my phone, I could look at my temperature thing and tell you with some detail within the accuracy that that provides.”

On his thoughts about the Cougars’ offensive line since the end of last season:

“(It has) improved. And there are a couple more bodies we can work in there.”

On the offensive line’s cohesiveness:

“A lot of them have played college football before. (Gunnar) Eckland has played college football. (Joe) Dahl — I guess you can’t say Dahl has necessarily played college football — but (Elliott) Bosch has played college football. (John) Fullington is back and Rico Forbes has played a little bit of college football. We’re glad Rico is back. So as inexperienced as we are, we’re significantly more experienced.

On how he has prepared for Marshall since no film is available of him playing quarterback against Division I competition:

“Yeah, we studied that (junior college film) and then also Coach (Gus) Malzahn has got a body of work of what he likes to do with his quarterback. And then of course you respect the abilities of all those guys and just try to figure out how to get in position within the core of their philosophy. And there’s a few tricks he mixes in, too. So (we) just have to play good, sound defense. And the thing is, he’s a really good quarterback, but we’re going to play against a lot of (good) quarterbacks this year, so we need to get used to that.”

August 27, 2013

Auburn notes: Gus Malzahn ‘curious to see how’ Nick Marshall responds in season opener

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — When Nick Marshall takes the field for the first time on Saturday, his coach will look on anxiously.

Nick Marshall will start his first game as Auburn's quarterback on Saturday. Head coach Gus Malzahn said he was 'curious' to see how the junior responds. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

Quarterback Nick Marshall will make his first start at Auburn on Saturday. Head coach Gus Malzahn said he was intrigued to see how his new signal-caller will react upon taking the field. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

Gus Malzahn’s apprehension is understandable. During his press conference on Tuesday, he noted that without the benefit of spring practice, it’s hard to predict how Marshall will react.

With that in mind, Malzahn said the coaching staff is going to do its best to “protect” the junior college transfer.

“I’ll be curious to see how he responds,” Malzahn said. “In practice, you put him through — it doesn’t matter if it’s quarterback or any other position — as many game-type situations as you can. But until you get him in that arena, that’s when everything becomes very clear.”

Marshall has shown no traces of the 20 interceptions he threw last season at Garden City Community College, as Malzahn trumpeted his signal-caller’s pinpoint precision.

“He’s very accurate, he really is,” Malzahn said. “He’s shown that he is accurate, not just in the vertical game but intermediate and short also.”

But as the well-worn cliche goes, doing it in practice is one thing. Doing it in a game — with live defenders waiting to pounce, which Marshall rarely faced in fall camp — is an entirely different story. To combat any nerves Marshall might have, Malzahn wants the quarterback to get comfortable before the Tigers start taking any chances.

“Then as the game goes on, you kind of get a feel when they come to the sidelines how they’re taking things in,” he said. “We’ll definitely keep that in mind early in the game.”

Malzahn was asked what the last thing he would say to Marshall before leaving the locker room Saturday. Getting Marshall to play without a hint of indecision is the goal, he said.

Not surprisingly, Malzahn’s hypothetical conversation will involve a generous dose of confidence-boosting advice.

“‘You’ve already done the work. You’ve already done the preparation,” he said. “It’s just a matter of, ‘Hey, you’re our guy. Just go out there and do your thing and have fun.’ That’s more or less the message that we’ll have for Nick.”

Tigers’ secondary prepares to battle Cougars’ ‘Air Raid’ attack

Malzahn’s take on the Tigers’ defense was concise: The coaching staff feels “as comfortable as we can” with five days remaining until Auburn hosts Washington State in the season opener for both teams.

“I know our coaches have worked extremely hard and our players really responded well,” he said.

No unit that will be tested more than the secondary, given Washington State’s penchant for passing; the Cougars had 624 attempts last season, more than any team in the nation. It doesn’t help matters that Auburn’s defensive backs have been thinned out by injury (cornerback Jonathan Jones) or dismissal (safety Demetruce McNeal). Regardless, the Tigers will have to press on, Malzahn said.

And it wouldn’t hurt if the defense is able to harrass Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday to alleviate the pressure on the secondary.

“When the quarterback had time (last year) they were very effective,” Malzahn said. “We’ve got to get a pass rush. They’re going to throw it a lot, so we’re going to have to have some depth in the secondary. It’ll be a good challenge for our defense.”

Quick hits

Aside from Jones and defensive end Dee Ford, Malzahn said he couldn’t rule any other players out for Saturday “right now.” … According to Malzahn, the Tigers have yet to choose their captains for the game. … Auburn will have three coaches in the booth this season: defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, cornerbacks coach Melvin Smith and wide receivers coach Dameyune Craig.

August 26, 2013

Auburn football: Coordinators discuss positional rotations prior to depth chart release

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn has yet to release a depth chart heading into its season opener against Washington State on Saturday.

Until that time comes — it is expected to be released at some point Tuesday — which players will fill out the two-deep lineup remains a mystery. One of those positions is safety, where the dismissal of senior safety Demetruce McNeal left a gaping hole.

Senior cornerback Chris Davis (11) was one player Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson had no worries about heading into Saturday's season opener versus Washington State. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

Senior cornerback Chris Davis (11) was one player Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson had no worries about heading into Saturday’s season opener versus Washington State. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

Former cornerback Josh Holsey stepped in at the spot during the spring and stayed there for the duration of fall camp. With McNeal gone and barring any issues arising between now and the opener, Holsey will take the field as the team’s starting boundary safety.

As it stands, defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said he was comfortable with three safeties as Saturday nears.

“You’ve got Holsey, Ryan Smith and (Jermaine) Whitehead,” Johnson said. “So I think right now, it would have to be some kind of a three-man rotation. Unless one of them got hurt, and then Kiehl Frazier will be ready to go.”

It was the same story at the two linebacker positions, Johnson said, at ease with the trio of Jake Holland, Kris Frost and Anthony Swain.

“I think Jake could move to the Will (line)backer if he had to,” Johnson said of the likely starter at middle linebacker. “Swain’s had a pretty good week of practice. I think first I’d probably put Swain on the field if he played well and did OK. If not, I’d move Jake over there. Frost and Holland are (the) only players at Mike right now.”

Johnson reiterated that view when asked whether weakside linebacker Cassanova McKinzy would stay on the field in Auburn’s dime package and shift to the middle, where he played last season.

“Cass hasn’t worked any at that,” he said. “It’s just too much for him to learn right now. When we go to dime, whatever Mike linebacker is on the field stays out there. They’re not asked to do anything outside the box. There’s really nothing they physically can’t handle, but we’ll usually leave that mike linebacker on the field. It’s about the fewest number of guys going on and off the field.”

The three-man approach didn’t stop with linebackers and safeties, though. Johnson said it also extended to cornerback, where the Tigers are content with Chris Davis, Jonathon Mincy and Ryan White. Auburn is still trying to find a replacement for Jonathan Jones, who broke a bone in his ankle in an off-field accident near the end of fall camp. No timetable has been announced for his return.

The three players vying for time in Jones’ absence all lack experience, comprised of a redshirt freshman (T.J. Davis) and a pair of true freshmen (Kamryn Melton and Johnathan Ford).

Ford in particular has continued to impress Johnson since moving from running back to cornerback following Jones’ injury.

“Johnathan’s still learning. He’s not ready yet, but he physically is the most impressive of the bunch,” Johnson said. “You never know how much improvement they can make when we restrict the game plan and cut it down for them mentally. Sometimes that hesitation and confusion can lead to playing poorly fundamentally. If we clean that up, I think he is really going to be a good player there.”

Unlike the defense, the offense has few positions still undecided.

One is at right tackle, where Patrick Miller and Avery Young split reps throughout fall camp. Young, however, started to switch between tackle and guard as fall camp came to a close. Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee couldn’t find enough good things to say about the sophomore, who sat out spring practice while rehabbing from shoulder surgery.

Though the average person may not know finer points of what it takes to be an offensive lineman, Lashlee believed Young would be easy to spot even to the untrained eye.

Young’s talent stands on its own merit.

“He’s an athletic guy,” Lashlee said. “At guard he can really pull. At tackle he’s very athletic, really good in the run game. Shoot, he hasn’t done it yet, but he would probably be a really good center. He’s just a real versatile guy.”

August 25, 2013

Auburn notes: With Dee Ford out, Craig Sanders ‘excited’ to make first career start

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

Auburn Football

Senior Craig Sanders (13) is set to make the first career on Saturday in Auburn’s season opener against Washington State. Sanders has appeared in 37 games in the past three seasons. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

AUBURN, Ala.Craig Sanders has appeared in 37 games at Auburn in the last three seasons.

Not a single one of those appearances included a start. That is set to change Saturday. After Dee Ford injured a ligament in his knee during the second scrimmage of fall camp, the Tigers’ starting left defensive end position was vacated for an undetermined period of time, though defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said the senior will certainly miss the season opener.

In his absence, Sanders has stepped to the fore.

“I’m excited about it because this is my first start ever in my college career,” he said following Sunday’s practice. “I want Dee back as fast as he can get back because we want that rotation. Whether it’s him starting or me starting, we want to rotate in with both of us working because we need that rotation and depth.”

Johnson said Sanders has most the most of the work he’s had with the first-team defense since Ford went down.

“Craig’s been really consistent assignment-wise,” he said. “Not many missed assignments. He’s done some pretty good things in pass rush. There’s no question I think all the additional repetitions have helped him fundamentally, but he’s done pretty well.”

It will be difficult to replace Ford’s production, however. He was the team’s top returning pass-rusher, totaling 6.5 sacks last season. Sanders said he will do his best to try to fill the void, hoping the gains he made during the offseason will carry over to this fall.

“My thing was using my hands when I was pass rushing,” he said. “With (defensive line) ‘Coach G’ (Rodney Garner) and Coach Brandon Wheeling, they have been helping me one-on-one with flipping my hips and using my hands off the ball. Since the spring actually it has improved greatly. I’m very satisfied with how it’s improved.”

He’s not the only defensive end who has made improvements. Johnson said he’s also seen growth from the Tigers’ other pass-rushers, most notably the true freshman duo of Elijah Daniel and Carl Lawson.

“Elijah and Carl have some pass-rush ability that some of the other guys don’t have,” he said. “They’ve gotten a lot of work. They’re making some mistakes, some mental errors, but they’re going to have to play. And I think all this extra work has really helped them.”

Until Ford returns, however, the Tigers will mix-and-match at the two defensive end spots. Sanders said he and LaDarius Owens — who just shifted back to the defensive line after moving to linebacker this spring — have seen the majority of the reps at left end. Seniors Nosa Eguae and Ken Carter will be part of the rotation as well, along with the aforementioned freshman pair of Lawson and Daniel.

Regardless of what happens Saturday, Sanders said he just wants to be able to revel in the moment when his name is announced as part of the starting lineup.

“I’m going to be pumped,” he said. “I’ll be able to jump 10 feet in the air. It will be awesome. I’m ready. I’m really ready.”

Marcus Davis already in line for playing time

When offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee was asked which true freshman would “definitely play” Saturday, only one name came to mind: Marcus Davis. The receiver kept “showing up” in practices every time Lashlee turned around.

Eventually, it became too much for the coach to ignore.

“He’s kind of put himself in the mix for some playing time,” Lashlee said. “There’s some of those guys that are on playing time on teams as well, but he’s the one that keeps standing out the most, probably.”

What has Davis done to catch the eye of the coaching staff? Cliche as it sounds, “all the little things,” Lashlee said.

Davis’ background as a quarterback hasn’t hurt, either, as Lashlee believes that has helped for a quick transition from high school to college.

“He came in you could tell he wasn’t in the moment of, ‘Hey, I’m in college and these guys are bigger and faster,'” Lashlee said. He’s been steady. I’m not going to say he’s made a lot of ‘wow’ plays, although he’s made a few. He’s just been steady and he’s worked hard, he’s listened and he’s tried to do everything the coaches say.”

Fellow receiver Quan Bray praised the Delray Beach, Fla., native as well.

“I’ve seen him come in with (the right) mentality,” Bray said. “He’s young but he’s definitely ready to play because he’s a baller. Coach (Gus) Malzahn said it — he’s a natural all the time.”

Quick hits

Johnson said hybrid safety/linebacker Justin Garrett has “looked pretty good” since he returned to practice. The junior sprained his foot during fall camp, which forced him to miss 12 straight practices. “He’s looked like the old Justin,” Johnson said. “If you need to know how he feels, you’d have to ask him. But he’s made some plays.” … Lashlee said Avery Young has continued to move back and forth between tackle and guard on the offensive line. “He was tackle early, then it was guard and lately he’s been doing some of both,” Lashlee said. “We’ve had him at tackle probably the last week or so.”

August 23, 2013

Miss anything? Links to all recent Auburn content in one place

Auburn 31, ULM Louisiana-Monroe 28

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Some may remember a post on WarEagleExtra.com two weeks ago which linked to 19 different stories at one time.

Well, it’s the same deal here. There have been 22 additions to the blog since Monday (not including this post, of course), and with almost 48 hours remaining until we get to speak with any of Auburn’s players or coaches again — we’ll be speaking with coordinators, Ellis Johnson and Rhett Lashlee on Sunday evening, for those wondering — it would be a good time to get caught up on all the latest goings-on with the Tigers.

So don’t frustrate yourself by trying to scroll down to take in every piece of content that’s been produced in the last four days. That’s what this post is here for: to make it simpler for you, the reader, by having everything compiled in one place.

If you’re looking for a notebook, we’ve got it. A feature? That too. Videos? Yes sir. Whatever you want, you should be able to find below. (And as per usual, each item is sectioned accordingly.)

NEWS & NOTES

8/19 — Injuries to keep Dee Ford and Jonathan Jones out of season opener

8/20 — True freshman Johnathan Ford switching from running back to cornerback

8/20 — Former Tigers Demetruce McNeal and Ricky Parks find new schools

8/20 — Gus Malzahn looks back at first fall camp as Tigers coach, feels team covered ‘all of our situations’

8/21 — 2014 schedule has Tigers hosting Arkansas in opener, traveling to Georgia and Alabama

8/22 — Six Tigers selected to coaches’ All-SEC preseason teams

8/22 — Demetruce McNeal officially enrolled at West Alabama

8/22 — Kiehl Frazier ‘in the mix’ for playing time in season opener, Justin Garrett returns to practice

VIDEO INTERVIEWS, POST-PRACTICE

8/19 — Gus Malzahn: Head coach says Nick Marshall ‘was a lot more vocal’ in first practice as starting QB

8/19 — Nick Marshall feels ‘blessed’ to start at quarterback for Tigers

8/19 — Rhett Lashlee says Nick Marshall ‘taking it and running with’ quarterback responsibilities

8/20 — Ellis Johnson has seen improvement ‘with past four practices’ after spate of injuries disrupt cohesiveness

8/20 — Auburn offense finds ‘best rhythm that we’ve had since I’ve been back’ in final practice of fall camp

8/21 — Junior defensive tackles Angelo Blackson and Gabe Wright

8/23 — Gus Malzahn pleased to see Nick Marshall ‘just as disappointed as the coaches’ when he makes a mistake

PLAYER/POSITION PROFILES

8/19 — Jonathan Wallace ahead of Jeremy Johnson in fight for backup QB spot

8/22 — Cassanova McKinzy believes weakside linebacker spot will showcase ‘everything I can do’

8/23 — Tigers not lacking for options in the backfield

MISCELLANEOUS ANALYSIS & SUCH

8/21 — Five questions (and five predictions) as Tigers head into regular season

8/22 — Replay Thursday’s live chat

8/23 — 4 at 4: Links to help the day pass by

August 22, 2013

UPDATED (w/video):Cassanova McKinzy believes weakside linebacker spot will showcase ‘everything I can do’

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — The raw numbers don’t come close to an accurate retelling Cassanova McKinzy’s 2012 season.

A true freshman, he played in eight games and made two starts. In that time on the field, he made 23 tackles and forced a fumble. And McKinzy did this, he admitted, playing in a position that didn’t suit him.

Cassanova McKinzy (30) felt he played out of position last season at middle linebacker. Now he's back on the weakside, where he feels much more comfortable. (File photo)

Cassanova McKinzy (30) felt he played out of position last season at middle linebacker. Now he’s back on the weakside, where he feels much more comfortable. (File photo)

A star at outside linebacker at Woodlawn High School in Birmingham, Ala., then-Auburn defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder had other ideas for McKinzy, deciding to shift him to middle linebacker. Forced to deal with making the calls for the defense negated his ability to simply react to the play, which McKinzy believes is his best attribute.

“You’ve got to make the call, make sure all the linemen are right and then you have to do your assignment,” he said. “Then you have to make all the checks. This is SEC football; you have to make a lot of checks. Communicating with the D-linemen was the hardest part.”

McKinzy also bulked up to 254 pounds last year, the highest weight of his playing career, believing it was required if he wanted to be able to compete in the SEC.

But when new defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson arrived, weight was lifted off McKinzy’s shoulders, both literally and figuratively.

Johnson told him to cut some pounds from his frame: McKinzy was moving back to the weakside.

“I felt like I had to drop weight so I can run with the receivers since I wasn’t playing middle linebacker anymore,” he said, noting he now tips the scales at 241 pounds. “I transferred to Will, so I had to cover a little bit more.”

He couldn’t have been more pleased with the switch, finally back at a spot where he feels comfortable.

“I like it because I get a chance to show what I really can do besides playing the box and stopping the run,” he said. “It gives me an opportunity to show everything I can do.”

And during fall camp, Johnson said the sophomore did just that.

“His change of direction — redirect on counters, coming out of your break when you drop in zone and those types of things, just acceleration and explosion to the point of attack — he’s gotten better and he can practice longer at a high tempo,” Johnson said. “He would not finish a practice (in the spring) and I felt like he was too heavy and out of shape.”

McKinzy isn’t just playing faster since he’s lighter than last year. He said it’s also due to Johnson’s 4-2-5 system, which is far less complicated than the 4-3 scheme VanGorder used.

“It’s a big difference,” he said. “The only thing I’ve got to worry about is who I’m playing with — who is on my left , who is on my right, what my defensive line is doing in front of me. I feel more free.”

As the Tigers continue to prepare for the season opener against Washington State, McKinzy said the defense has been practicing out of both their base formation and a dime package. Against a team as pass-heavy as the Cougars, having an effective dime formation is integral.

McKinzy wasn’t sure which package the Tigers would use most often.

“It’s been a little bit more dime just in case,” he said. “We’ve got certain schemes we want to have base on the field because the size of the linebackers, the difference between a dime back, they’re much faster than an outside linebacker. We’ve just been working real hard on both because we don’t know what they can do.”

But McKinzy at least has a bit of an idea of the things that will occur on the field. He has that playing time last season to thank for it, after all.

Even if it came at a position that was an ill fit for him.

“By me playing the little time I played (last year), I feel like it did a lot for this year playing SEC games,” he said. “Coaches had been saving me for those out-of-conference games. They always put me in to stop the run. I appreciate what they did last year by giving me a chance when they came. “